Highlights of 2017

Sliding in just under the buzzer, I’m here to carry on our tradition where I tell you everything I liked from the past twelve months and then make you a couple of false promises about posts I am going to deliver in the new year. 2017 has been wild, and it continues to do the most even as we approach the last seconds of this hellish ride, but on the bright side it also brought quite a few great film, game, and television show releases. I’d like to highlight a few that stick out in my mind as well as revisit some of my previous plans for what to watch, read, and play. So without further ado, let’s get to the good stuff. Since we’re all (web) family here, I know this goes without saying, but just in case anyone accidentally wandered onto this blog while looking for vegan cheesecake recipes or something, there will be spoilers in this post!

In my past two wrap up posts, I’ve made a list of things I was excited to check out the coming year. This year, I wanted to watch The Lego Batman Movie (I didn’t) and Big Little Lies (I did!), and play Horizon Zero Dawn (nope) and Mass Effect Andromeda (yes!). Although Mass Effect Andromeda did not make my 2017 list, I really enjoyed it. (Take that virtually everyone else who played, bought, or heard about that game!) I also acquired a PS4 this year, which was exciting, but I just set it up today so my opinion on Horizon Zero Dawn is still forthcoming. While I only had a 50% completion rate for my 2016 media consumption resolutions, I did read, watch, and play a LOT of great things this year, so let’s move on to my favorites. As usual, I picked a totally arbitrary number of them and they are not listed in any particular order.

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One Day at a Time
This was a show I had never heard of and had no expectations for until it came up in my Netflix queue. I had no idea that it was (at least loosely) based on a 1970s sitcom of the same name about a divorced single mom, her children, and the building superintendent. If that description isn’t selling you, I won’t hold it against you, but I urge you to give this show a chance. Whether you loved the original or you usually pass on sitcoms, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by this show. Centering on a multigenerational Cuban-American family, the show grapples with race, ethnicity, and culture in refreshing ways that I imagine the previous iteration did not. Much of the first season focuses on Elena, who is turning fifteen and planning her quinceanera. The lead up to the party sets the stage for one of the most cathartic and gracefully-done coming out storylines I have seen in modern television. While the show pulls no punches when it comes to cheesy sitcom tropes or ~big emotional moments~, the entire cast does an amazing job of bringing humanity and nuance to their roles and the writers choose to spend just the right amount of time on tenderness and silliness. I could say more, but I’d rather you stop reading this and go watch it immediately. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll have that damn catchy theme song in your head for the next two weeks.

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Get Out
First of all, just in case anyone has heard the contrary, this is a horror film a la Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives. For some reason people keep calling it a comedy (internalized racism is not a good look y’all), but Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is a terrifyingly realistic story about the way white supremacy robs black people of their bodily autonomy and then tells them that’s not happening at all and implying anything of the sort would be ridiculous. Even though I always include spoiler warnings in these posts, I honestly don’t want to say too much about how exactly the movie navigates themes of family, power, heritage, and relationships because the pacing and tone as the story unfurls adds to the artistry. I will just say that there are layers upon layers of symbolism in this movie that contribute to its impact, so if you haven’t yet watched it, you’re gonna want to set aside some time to talk about it afterwards, and probably also read a bunch of reviews, trivia, and fan theories.

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The Shape of Water
When the credits rolled on this film, it felt like a fist unclenching around my heart. This movie really got me! Not only is it beautifully shot, the actors are also terrific, especially the leads Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones (the latter of whom is a mime and played Billy in Hocus Pocus, so he’s generally a cool and talented dude). Michael Shannon is wonderful as always, Richard Jenkins manages not just to hold his own but to charm us despite his subplot wandering away from the main action of the film, and Octavia Spencer is a gem whenever she is onscreen, which is not nearly enough! Guillermo del Toro somehow mixes horror, romance, Cold War anxiety, and magical realism into a touching fairy tale that I think I like more than Pan’s Labyrinth (please don’t yell at me!). The aesthetics are out of this world, but like Get Out, there is also a loving attention to detail in terms of symbolism and theme. For example, Elisa’s scars are subtle enough that you forget them as the film goes on, but they gain importance when the story comes to a close and Elisa realizes her destiny to return to the water. TLDR: the fishman/human sexy times did not put me off.

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Prey
Sticking with our theme of remakes that outdid their source material, an update of the bizarre 2006 first person shooter Prey is surprisingly my standout video game of the year. The 2017 take keeps little from the original, but holds on to what worked, like periods of variable gravity and a plot that centers on familial relationships. I was incredibly impressed with the game’s ability to weave exploration storytelling in the vein of Bioshock or even Gone Home with the stealth gameplay that made the Dishonored games so unique. And as if that wasn’t enough, they also set the story in space so…yeah, I obviously loved it. The introductory scenes masterfully use and subvert player expectations for in-game tutorials (which also made for a great demo that I’m guessing hooked quite a few people—I decided to buy the game after watching only about one minute of let’s play footage). You encounter few living non-playable characters, but everyone you meet or learn about feels fleshed out, as does the space station you spend most of your time on, Talos I. Players have a lot of freedom in Prey, and I was both surprised and satisfied by the numerous ways the story could wrap up.

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Coco
Last year, a Disney animated feature made my list, and this year they’ve done it again! Apparently, I was really into aesthetic detail in 2017, but Coco is worth watching multiple times if only to notice the incredible work that went into creating the Land of the Dead. You could spend an entire viewing just looking for the skull motifs (and I did). But beyond how pretty the film is, it took cues from Moana’s success and centered Latinx writers, actors, and artists in its story that draws heavily from Mexican culture and folklore, which is what made it internationally successful. Like One Day at a Time, the film focuses on a multigenerational family and the way the members influence one another. Anthony Gonzalez hits it out of the park in what better be a breakout role for him, and the music feels at once familiar and delightfully new. My favorites are “Un Poco Loco” and the sad rendition of “Remember Me” (you’ll know it when you cry over it). Despite having to walk out of the theater with tear-streaks down my face, and sit through the now infamous Frozen short, I am really glad I saw this movie.

As usual, I’ve been really wordy, but I do also want to share some honorable mentions including Logan (an amazing film on its own or for comic fans), Blade Runner 2049 (if you liked the original, you’re gonna like this), Thor: Ragnarok (a feel-good movie following in the footsteps of the first Guardians of the Galaxy), The Disaster Artist, The Florida Project (you will cry), The Big Sick, Molly’s Game (Jessica Chastain is a goddess), Mindhunter, and a ton of other things I’m forgetting to mention right now.

And we can’t forget what I missed in 2017/my anticipated releases of 2018:

  • Call Me By Your Name – As soon as the Sufjan Stevens music started playing in the trailer I knew this movie was for me.
  • I, Tonya – I have to see this, if only because I’ve watched the trailer in theaters so many times that I now have it memorized. Regardless of audience makeup, everyone always laughs when the parrot pecks Allison Janney’s neck.
  • Wolfenstein II – I can’t let the video game cultural zeitgeist leave me behind again!
  • Horizon Zero Dawn – See above. Also, I love Ashly Burch.
  • A Wrinkle in Time – This was my favorite book growing up and Oprah Winfrey is in this movie, two great omens for this film.

All right, that does it for my annual media highlights. Hard to believe another year has come and gone, especially since 2017 has felt more like thirty years. Nonetheless, whether as a form of resistance or a palette cleanser, I wish us all an inspiring 2018 full of art and culture that makes us think and drives us forward. And as always, thank you for reading!

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Highlights of 2015

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After a lengthy and unplanned, but personally productive hiatus (slogged through graduate school applications and played a LOT of Fallout), I am back to wrap up 2015 and put a bow on it. This year saw the release of a number of highly-anticipated games, films, books, and television shows as well as plenty of surprise hits and a few disappointments. As just one person with highly subjective opinions, I will not be attempting any kind of top ten list or ranking system. There are so many wonderful pieces of media out there that it would be absurd for me to even pretend I could evaluate them all. But I am a big fan of taking time to look back and wallow in nostalgia, so I decided to talk about some of my personal highlights of 2015 as they relate to nerd culture and this blog.

In no particular order, here were some of my favorite moments of the past year:

Master of None
While not sci-fi, fantasy, or fairytale, Aziz Ansari’s single-camera sitcom about the experience of Dev, an Indian American actor in New York City, has plenty to offer for film-nerds and pop culture connoisseurs. The cinematography and soundtrack call back to 1970s American films, and the scripts/dialogue take some cues from Richard Linklater (whom I love), but Aziz Ansari’s contemporary content, diverse casting, and willingness to address social issues help the show feel fresh. Each episode focuses on a different ‘topic’ ranging from family relationships to racism to sexism to long-term romantic relationships, and each except the last two are directed by a different person. The show is consistently funny throughout its first season and its surprising and somewhat risky finale only makes me more excited to see where it goes from here.

Life is Strange
Since this blog was inactive until midway through Life is Strange’s episodic release, I was only really able to talk about episode 5 here so far, and what I did say about it was highly critical. But this was easily my favorite game of 2015 if only because of the emotional impact it had on me. Although I’d played Remember Me, Dontnod and Life is Strange weren’t really on my radar in January, a friend recommended this game to me and I was immediately hooked. The sci-fi premise, artistically rendered environments, and well-curated soundtrack drew me in but it was the authenticity of the Chloe and Max, and the nuanced performances by their voice actors Ashly Burch and Hannah Telle, that kept me hooked. While the pacing, puzzles, and dialogue missed the mark at times, moments like breaking into the school and going for a swim with Chloe or playing detective in her room were a pleasure to play. For all its eccentricities and missteps, Life is Strange was one of the most compelling games of 2015, as its passionate fans who spent months speculating, theorizing, and creating art and follow-up projects can attest to.

SXSW Gaming Expo
This was my second year attending the SXSW Gaming Expo in Austin and it was just as entertaining and content-packed this time as in 2014. The indie game corner is my favorite portion, but the panels were interesting and the table-top area is really fun; they’ll teach you games like Magic the Gathering if you’re a first-timer or you can play competitively if you’re experienced. You can try Oculus Rift/VR if you haven’t had a chance, and explore exhibits of older game and computer technology. I almost didn’t want to mention the event here since it is one of the only Austin-based festival activities that isn’t horrendously crowded, one of the coolest conferences/expos/game things I’ve attended, and totally free, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge it as one of my favorite parts of 2015. Plus, in case I haven’t mentioned it 12,000 times, I met Felicia Day!!!

The Martian
I have not read Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, and took my sweet time to see this movie, but I am so glad I did. I was less than impressed by both Interstellar and Gravity, but this film has earned a place in my list of favorite space movies. While the decision to cast non-asian actors in the roles of Vincent Kapoor and Mindy Park was very disappointing to me, and the tale of the sympathetic white man who the world saves/who saves the world has certainly already been told, The Martian was an engaging story with a diverse cast that emphasized the power of humanity to come together and use our knowledge and compassion to address incredibly complex issues, and that was something I appreciated. Rather than feeling dumbed down, sensationalized, or derailed by seemingly shoe-horned romances (although it does contain one of these), the film felt like it trusted and respected its audience. And Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis is probably as close as I’ll ever get to seeing FemShep on the big screen.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Speaking of space movies, the latest installment in the Star Wars saga was quite a satisfying one. While talking with people about this film before its release, I got the feeling that each of us was holding our breath, hoping that we wouldn’t be disappointed. Upon leaving the theater after watching the movie, I imagined a collective sigh of relief as we all realized J. J. Abrams actually did a really great job of rooting this film in the Star Wars tradition while opening up room for new chapters of the story to unfold. Nothing about the movie particularly surprised me, from the climactic battle to the binary of good and evil to who lived and who died, but it was quite refreshing to see beneath the Storm Trooper helmet to a black man, and to watch a woman inherit the Jedi legacy. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the story heads, and now that we’ve established that Star Wars can handle sequels and we can handle them, to the surprises I hope Episodes VIII and IX will bring.

And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the indie PC game Her Story (which I’ve written about pretty extensively on this blog), the choice-based horror for PS4 Until Dawn, the lovely Adventure Time mini-series Stakes, or the countless other 2015 productions that deserve a place on a highlights list.

There are also quite a few things from this year that I haven’t gotten to check out yet and am really looking forward to, like:

  • Tales from the Borderlands
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
  • It Follows
  • Carol
  • Sicario
  • Orphan Black Season 3

While I’d say we’re ending 2015 on quite a high note, I have a lot of catching up to do without even beginning to touch on all that next year will bring, so don’t be surprised if things stay a little quiet around here through the winter. The blog remains a priority of mine and I hope you guys will stick around as we continue reading, playing, and watching in 2016.

As always, thanks for reading! Your comments are welcome below. Happy holidays!